Saturday, February 11, 2017

Home to Highbury: On Loving Emma


     Emma became my favorite Jane Austen story the moment I was introduced to it. The Gwenyth Paltrow movie version has long been one of my favorites, and though it took me several watchings to appreciate it, the BBC version has also become a well-liked adaptation. And then, of course, there's the book itself- one that I've been re-reading for class this semester and loving every moment of. I've greatly enjoyed my British Novel class because of the discussions we're able to have about literature--though, in truth, it can be a little frustrating as well (because, I mean, if you don't love Mr. Knightley I just don't think we can be friends.)

from tumblr

     I'm not sure why this book is my favorite. As much as I like her, I freely admit that Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen's more maddening heroines and I can't give Mr. Knightley all the credit for making me love the novel so. Then why do I adore it so much?

     When it comes down to it, I think what I love about Emma is the close-knit society in which the characters exist. Highbury isn't a large town, and everyone seems to know everybody, at least by sight. There's a small circle of friends, family, and frenemies in a way that's not so different from my life, but different enough for me to yearn for its simplicity, and its absence of 24/7 news, politics, and Facebook rants. It seems cozy there, and comfortable. There's something about a small, old-fashioned English village that seems welcoming--a reason, perhaps, why my favorite Elizabeth Gaskell movie adaptation is Cranford--and when I'm reading Emma I feel like I've been enveloped in a warm blanket and set in front of the fire. (My long-neglected and abandoned etsy shop, in fact, bore the name of "Home To Highbury" as homage to one of my favorite fictional places) It's the only Jane Austen novel where the action doesn't move from place to place. There are no scenes in London, no trips to Bath, no excursions to the distant house of friends or distant relations. We might hear of events happening in those places, but all of the "on-screen" action happens in Highbury.

     Like most Jane Austen novels, the problems of Emma are in some sense small. There are no explosions, no world-saving exploits, no fights against tyranny or examples of political intrigue. But maybe because it's so contained, so centered on a small group of people, is why it works so well. Everything that happens in the book is vitally important to the characters's lives. It delves into the emotions, misunderstandings, and mistakes that we all make. There is so much about the book that is appealing to me: the characters who are so distinct and yet are so familiar because we've met their counterparts in our everyday lives; the equally familiar but uncomfortable situations they get themselves into, and the promise of a happy ending. But for all its familiarity, it's still a form of escapism, too. I know that sometimes I get wearied from the world and all of its current problems: its immorality, its strife, its determination to reject all that is wholesome and good. Jane Austen's world was far from perfect, but Emma's idealistic one very nearly is, and we know that all of her problems will (eventually) resolve themselves.

      When it comes down to it, visiting the unchanging world of Emma is a bit like coming home, where Mr. Woodhouse always has a bit of gruel set out for you, Miss Bates is as eager as ever to talk anyone's ear off about Jane Fairfax, and Mr. Knightley's sage advice is always a short walk away.

(Interestingly enough, it seemed like everybody on my Goodreads feed was reading or rereading Emma this past month or two. I wonder if we all decided to do so separately, or if we saw that others were reading it and thought it sounded like a good idea!)


Kristin said...

I love Emma too! It was my second favorite Austen novel for years, until Persuasion usurped it. :) The supporting characters are so memorable, and Mr. Knightley is definitely my favorite Austen hero. And Emma, while being a bit of a misguided snob, does have a good heart and means well. :)

E.F.B. said...

I listened to Emma on audio in March last year, and I've noticed quite a lot of people on my Goodreads feed reading it since then too. For me, I decided to read it on my own, but it is funny how it seems like lots of people sometimes read the same book at the same time.

I enjoyed Emma, but I think I'll need to re-read it with my eyeballs, or listen to it with a better narrator to enjoy it as much as it deserves. The narrator for the audio book I found wasn't awful, but she wasn't great either. She didn't do much to change her voice for the different characters and I frequently lost track of who was doing what and got really confused. I've since discovered a narrator named Juliet Stevenson and she's AWESOME!!! She can do lots of different voices and when I listen to her read Austen's work, I never get confused.

Charity said...

*high five for the 1996 movie love*

Mr. Knightley is great. Can we be friends? ;)

(Seriously, he was one of my early crushes, thanks to the Paltrow version. I always thought Northam's Knightley was lovely!)

You're right, in that there's a small-world feel to "Emma." It's quite intimate, despite being about a meddling busybody!

Nice contribution to the blog-a-thon. :)

Deborah O'Carroll said...

I only recently read Emma myself and I loved it so much! It's so... clever somehow, and fascinating; and yay for Mr. Knightley! ;) If you love it so, you should definitely try Sarah Holman's 1930s retelling Emmeline which is releasing next week... it's excellent. :D This post was so cool! *basks in all the wonderful Emma things*

Evangeline said...

Another person that likes hte 1996 Version as much as I do?! :-D
Awesomeness!! I to love Emma! It's SUCH a great one!

Madeline Osigian said...

Oh my goodness! I love Jane Austen so much!!! Emma is a very popular favorite, but you're so right about how they don't travel. That's one of the themes throughout the book: Emma has never been to the seaside.

I think we're friends on Goodreads, Hayden. If you haven't already, we'd love if you joined The Official Jane Austen Book Club under "Groups" on Goodreads. It's really fun!

Hamlette said...

Emma Woodhouse is one of my least-favorite Austen heroines, and yet, I just keep wanting to like her. Which is why I love the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, because Emma's a bit mellower and sweeter in it than in the book, and I have an easier time liking her. She's not so bored and occasionally petty, she's more misguided, I guess.

However, Mr. Knightley is a prince, and the book as a whole makes me hoot with laughter, so I do enjoy reading it even if I want to stop Emma from messing everything up all the time.

Thanks for joining I Love Austen Week!

Natalie said...

I fell in love with Emma when I read it for my tenth grade literature class. Immediately after finishing it I rewarded myself by watching the Gwyneth Paltrow version, mostly because I'd heard good things about it and pictured Mr. Knightley pretty much just like Jeremy Northam. I fell in love with that movie, too. Similarly, it's taken me a couple watchings, but I now love the 2009 version. Anyways, I just thought that was funny how our introduction to Emma kind of followed the same path. ;)

Awwww. I LOVE this. Highbury is indeed a very safe, homey place. I wish places like that existed in the real world for us to "escape" to. But, at least we have books. :)

Molly Rebekah said...

Great review! I love the story of Emma. Now you've got me wanting to re-read it even more! :)

Skyeler said...

My sophmore year in high school, my mom put together a Jane Austen study, and I completely understand what you mean by loving it with occasional frustrations (after all, what is there to compare to not agreeing able Austen novels? Everyone has such strong opinions. xD ) But I think most people love Mr. Knightley. And sometimes we love those maddening heroines as well! Marianne is one of my absolute favorite, and she sure does have her selfish moments. But it is wonderful to watch our characters grow throughout the story.

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